In his book entitled Chosen by God, R.C. Sproul spent a lot of time explaining why human freedom and God’s freedom are both true, and yet aren’t paradoxical. He wrote “God is free. I am free. God is more free than I am. If my freedom runs up against God’s freedom, I lose. His freedom restricts mine; my freedom does not restrict his.”1
This is the concept of compatibilism, which is really part of the doctrine of providence. I discussed this briefly in an article entitled, “A Guy Named Sihon.” The Scriptures show us people do what they want, but God works in and through our own innate, sinful desires to infallibly accomplish His will. Many times, we aren’t even aware God is using us!
He even uses unbelievers for His own ends, and they’re blissfully ignorant. People sin. People do wicked things. God doesn’t merely permit this activity; He directs and channels it. I don’t intend to present a philosophical case for this position (you should read Sproul’s book, if you’re interested). But, I will discuss a passage that shows us this clearly and unmistakably.
Israel and the Assyrians
God send Isaiah to the Israelites, even though they wouldn’t listen. God intended Him to be a prophet whose message hardened and repelled the people (Isa 6); just like Jesus (Mk 4:10-12; Jn 12:39-41). And, that’s what happened.
King Ahaz ignored Isaiah, who told him the Assyrians would destroy the Syrians and the northern kingdom of Israel (Isa 8:5-10). God warned Isaiah that He, their covenant God, would be a “stone of offense and a rock of stumbling” to the Israelites (Isa 8:14). Nevertheless, one day Yahweh would raise up a mighty ruler, descended from David, who would rule over the whole world (Isa 9:1-7).
However, as is his way, Isaiah turned the tables suddenly from this cheery future and unleased on his people. Soon, he warned, God would destroy the unbelievers among the Israelites; “for everyone is godless and an evildoer, and every mouth speaks folly,” (Isa 9:17). And still, they won’t repent! With every rebuke, they dig their heads further into the sand. “For all this his anger has not turned away, and his hand is stretched out still,” (Isa 9:17).
But, what of the Assyrians? What does this have to do the concept of compatibilism? Everything. Listen to what God says:
Woe to Assyria, the rod of my anger;
the staff in their hands is my fury! (Isa 10:5).
The Assyrians are the instrument God intends to use to punish His people. Their staff executes His will and dispenses His fury. They act, but God is really the actor. They’re merely an intermediary to execute His will.
But, if that’s true, then why does God have Isaiah pronounce a woe upon them? Is it their fault? Why is it their fault? Are the Assyrians helpless puppets; pawns bent to do Yahweh’s will against their own better judgment?
Against a godless nation I send him,
and against the people of my wrath I command him,
to take spoil and seize plunder,
and to tread them down like the mire of the streets (Isa 10:6).
To God, the northern kingdom is “godless.” That’s rather harsh! They’re the people of His wrath, and God commands the Assyrians to “take spoil and seize plunder.” He wants them to trample the Israelites into the mud, like so much gutter trash.
You could get the idea the Assyrians are helpless to resist God’s command. Like soldiers following orders, how can they refuse Yahweh? Does God assign culpability and intent to the Assyrian’s actions? Does He absolve them of moral responsibility for the actions they’re undertaking at His command? This is the question, and the answer is profound. See what God says …
But he does not so intend,
and his heart does not so think;
but it is in his heart to destroy,
and to cut off nations not a few (Isa 10:7).
God commands, but the Assyrians are clueless. They don’t know God, and they don’t know what He wants them to do. What they do know is their own innate desire to destroy and conquer other nations. The Assyrians want to do this, and God is simply channeling and using their own sins to accomplish His holy will. The Assyrians don’t intend to do God’s will, and in their hearts they don’t think they are. But … they are! This is compatibilism.
for he says:
“Are not my commanders all kings?
Is not Calno like Carchemish?
Is not Hamath like Arpad?
Is not Samaria like Damascus?
As my hand has reached to the kingdoms of the idols,
whose carved images were greater than those of Jerusalem and Samaria,
shall I not do to Jerusalem and her idols
as I have done to Samaria and her images?” (Isa 10:8-11).
This is pride and arrogance. The Assyrians believe in their commanders, and they’re confident because of past military victories. What is Jerusalem? What is Samaria? They’re nothing. They’re nobodies. They’re pushovers. Again, they don’t know they’re being used. They do what they want. But, God does what He wants, too.
When the Lord has finished all his work on Mount Zion and on Jerusalem, he will punish the speech of the arrogant heart of the king of Assyria and the boastful look in his eyes (Isa 10:12).
God does assign moral responsibility to human actors – even when He’s channeling, directing and using that evil for His own holy purpose. What have the Assyrians done? Why are they arrogant? Isaiah tells us:
For he says:
“By the strength of my hand I have done it,
and by my wisdom, for I have understanding;
I remove the boundaries of peoples,
and plunder their treasures;
like a bull I bring down those who sit on thrones.
My hand has found like a nest
the wealth of the peoples;
and as one gathers eggs that have been forsaken,
so I have gathered all the earth;
and there was none that moved a wing
or opened the mouth or chirped,” (Isa 10:13-14).
They attribute their success to their own strength and cunning. Here is the philosophical paradox that confounds so many of us – people freely act, God directs and channels these wicked actions for His own ends, and still holds people responsible for those actions. It’s difficult to grasp. But, there it is.
Shall the axe boast over him who hews with it,
or the saw magnify itself against him who wields it?
As if a rod should wield him who lifts it,
or as if a staff should lift him who is not wood! (Isa 10:15).
We’re the creations. God is the Creator. We can’t ever forget that relationship. The Assyrians did. Some Christians do, too.
Therefore the Lord God of hosts
will send wasting sickness among his stout warriors,
and under his glory a burning will be kindled,
like the burning of fire.
The light of Israel will become a fire,
and his Holy One a flame,
and it will burn and devour
his thorns and briers in one day.
The glory of his forest and of his fruitful land
the Lord will destroy, both soul and body,
and it will be as when a sick man wastes away.
The remnant of the trees of his forest will be so few
that a child can write them down (Isa 10:16-19).
And, that’s the eventual end of the Assyrians. God won’t totally destroy them, but He will end their empire. He’ll use the Babylonians to do it. But, in the end, the Babylonians’ turn will come, too. “Behold, I am stirring up the Medes against them …” (Isa 13:17).
This doesn’t solve the paradox of human freedom and divine sovereignty, of course. But, it does further explain it. Berkhof wrote, “The divine concursus energizes man and determines him efficaciously to the specific act, but it is man who gives the act its formal quality, and who is therefore responsible for its sinful character. Neither one of these solutions can be said to give entire satisfaction, so that the problem of God’s relation to sin remains a mystery.”2
True, but we must not play the “mystery card” too soon, like some Christians do. We all do what we want. But, God works in and through our own sinful acts to accomplish what He wants. We’re often not aware of it. Judas certainly wasn’t. Neither were the Assyrians.
I’m glad we serve the one true God, who is in total control of this world, and our lives.